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TEACHED: Provocation and Distortion

January 10, 2013

A few months ago I wrote about a trio of short films I’d seen, directed by Kelly Amis as part of a project called TEACHED; two of those films in particular led me to include the description “glossy propaganda” in my blog post title.  To her credit, Amis responded to my critique (and linked to it) in her own blog post, with the clever title Thanks for calling me glossy  However, she isn’t pleased with the “animosity” in my post – and I’ll admit that my tone conveyed animosity, though aimed at the product rather than the producer.  Given that filmmaking (and writing) are such personal endeavors, I suppose it’s hard to avoid criticizing someone’s work without it having a personal sting, but I hope that my prior post, and this one, are focused on content and issues and not interpreted as personal attacks.  Ms. Amis seems like a nice enough person, with a sense of humor that I appreciate.

For those who don’t want or need all the details, the basic thrust of my problem with the films, and with Amis’s follow-up post, is that the challenges we face in public education are being oversimplified, and seemingly for the purpose of leading viewers/readers towards supporting particular education reform policies haven’t been proven necessary or effective.  Amis suggests that these short films are intended to reveal problems and provoke discussion about solutions.  I don’t see the benefit in provoking discussion based on inadequate and one-sided information.  The fact that the TEACHED promotional materials distort the tone and content of the films is an additional fault.

Interestingly, I noticed that while I posted critiques of two films, Amis only defended one film in any detail.  The ignored critiques center on the film Unchartered Territory; it’s promoted as a film that acknowledges the mixed record of charter schools and engages in inquiry, but in fact, the film has a clear argument from the start: charter schools provide a superior management and governance model, and the preferred pathway to school reform.  I won’t bother repeating my critiques in detail since Ms. Amis chooses to leave them be for now.

Amis did get into the details of my critique of the other film, and also attempted some mind-reading and faulty assumptions regarding me.  In my original post, I wondered why some speakers are not identified when they first speak.  For me as a viewer, this ambiguity about their perspectives affected how I evaluated their statements.  The film that prompted that reaction on my part is titled The Blame Game: Teachers Speak Out so I was looking for teachers.  Amis explains the rationale for withholding the identifying information when the speaker was first featured in a shorter clip.  That’s fine.  Now I understand.  But Amis tries to diminish my reaction by suggesting I’m grasping for a “conspiracy” – and then uses the occasion to attack Diane Ravitch and “many of her supporters/followers.”  She suggests that I probably share Ravitch’s views regarding roughly ten major players in education reform.  Wow.  At least she labels that part of her post as a sidenote.  I guess Ms. Amis will be pleased that she’s wrong on one count, as my only occasion to write about Cory Booker was actually quite positive regarding the Newark mayor.  Ironic, though, for Ms. Amis to list all those names, label the two groups, assign me to one of them, and then call on me to “Try to think outside the (two) box(es).”

To borrow from my own comment to a reader on the prior blog post, “I don’t consider myself a member of a camp. I’ve taken positions that union leaders disagree with at times, though I support unions. I’ve refrained from criticizing charter schools en masse, and have had good things to say about some charter schools, though I believe that competition is highly overrated and that an education ‘marketplace’ will be inherently inequitable.”

Regarding my critique that two of the films in particular are misleading and overly agenda-driven, Ms. Amis generally falls back on the broader rhetoric of the films, as if merely identifying the existence of problems in education is enough of a public service to excuse the lack of context, explanation, or balance.  So lest there be any possible misunderstanding, I’ll state what I think is obvious to any teacher or observer of American public education: I agree that there are some bad teachers, that it is often difficult to fire them, that it’s unfair we have to lay off talented and enthusiastic teachers, and that it’s a terrible waste of public money to have protracted legal battles around dismissals.  That doesn’t mean that the solutions are obvious, but the argument of the film seems to be we have to make it easier to fire teachers, change or remove tenure, eliminate seniority as a consideration in layoffs, and introduce some type of merit pay or performance pay.  (I refer readers to the ACT Publications page for more complex approaches to improving the teaching profession, solutions that come from teachers dissatisfied with the status quo, but taking into account a broader array of information).  My preferences would be to address those issues improving support for districts, schools, and administrators so that they can improve teaching quality, identify and support struggling teachers, build a stronger case to remove teachers when necessary, and above all, stop laying off any teachers to save money.  That last suggestion may be naive, but it’s intended to point out that the layoff problem is a byproduct of the economy and should not be used as a teaching quality lever.

Regarding the causes of those problems, The Blame Game manages to minimize use of the word “union” – but uses a number of union critics to express indignation at policies that must also be agreed to by policy makers, and then are often poorly implemented by overworked administrators in an often dysfunctional system, without ever hinting that the problem is not merely the union-advocated position.  Michelle Rhee, Jeanne Allen, and Howard Fuller have their say – and maybe their critiques have some validity – but there’s no one to speak up for seniority, traditional pay scales, or tenure.  (Allen even talks about “the tenure contract” in an odd mix of terms that hints at monolithic union protectionism, without actually identifying anything that really exists).  Amis responds to my critique by writing, “These are short films. They are obviously not going to cover every opinion on every topic they address. They are meant to provoke thoughtful conversation.”  Fair enough, except that I wasn’t asking for “every opinion” – how about some semblance of balance?  Even one contrasting or dissenting voice?  The films might “provoke thoughtful conversation” by chance, but as we know from good teaching practices, the odds of success are improved if we model what it is we wish to see.

On the importance of teaching quality, I pointed out an error in the film, one that appears in a text graphic, and is repeated by Michelle Rhee – the idea that the quality of the teacher is the strongest determinant of educational outcomes.  The crucial qualifier that’s missing is “in school.”  In other words, teachers have a stronger influence than anything else in schools – principals, text books, schedules, etc.  In her blog post, Amis directs readers to a study called “Good Teaching Matters… A Lot.”  She calls this sixteen-page report from 1998 “current research” (!) as she hopes I base my thinking on something more recent than the Coleman Report (1966).  I would guide Amis and other interested readers to start with a blog post by Matt DiCarlo.  Here’s the key paragraph:

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

Now, Ms. Amis, before you mistake my intentions, I do not offer this information as a defense of the status quo, nor do I believe that schools or teachers should be any less dedicated to doing the best they can for all students, nor do I approach my teaching with any less urgency or importance in light of this information.  I’m simply pointing out that information presented in your film is, if not wrong, at least misleading by omission.  (For example, Michelle Rhee says “all of the research” backs up her views).

Regarding layoffs and firing, my prior blog post cited statistics from LAUSD that paint a picture far more complex than is presented in a text graphic in the film.  Amis points out this information came out after the film was made.  Forgiving that oversimplification then, we can see that this portion of the film might at least be outdated.  But, what about a related bit of information you presented, regarding Washington, D.C. and its failed attempt to dismiss 75 teachers?  Just to make the decontextualized number a bit more inflammatory, we’re informed that these teachers were initially fired “for reasons including absenteeism and aggressive behavior” (though we have no idea about how many of each, or how severe the infractions).  The film notes that the district was forced to reinstate the teachers, at a cost of $7.5 million (though it’s unclear what that price tag covers: legal fees? back pay? next year’s salary?).  In this case, relevant contextual information was available at the time, but you left it out of the film.  Those 75 teachers were reinstated because the district messed up by failing to tell the teachers why they were fired.  Additionally, The Washington Post reported, “The 75 teachers were part of the approximately 1,000 educators fired during Rhee’s 3 1/2-year tenure, which ended with her resignation in October. Of the total, 266 were laid off in October 2009 for budgetary reasons, about 200 were dismissed because of poor performance, and the rest were on probation or did not have licensing required by the No Child Left Behind law.”  It’s likely some of those 75 teachers deserved to be fired, but it’s not helpful to present so little information as if it’s persuasive evidence of an obvious problem.   Presenting a numerator without the denominator is like composing a simile without…

Sadly, in an apparent tit-for-tat response to my critique of her films, Amis chooses to question my work quite broadly – fair game I suppose, but only effecitve if she has details to back up the shot she takes.  She concludes her blog post by asking, “why not use your voice in the public realm to work for change instead of protecting the status quo?”  What a tired cliché.  As I’ve noted before, “I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to change the society I live in, trying to improve students lives and the educational system in which we operate.  It doesn’t feel like I’m embracing the status quo when I spend every day trying to create change.  But according to President Obama, Arne Duncan, and the reformers who embrace their agenda, I can only earn my ‘Status-Quo-Buster’ badge by agreeing with their ideas.”  (I’m not necessarily suggesting Ms. Amis identifies with “the reformers” – though she uses the same rhetoric).

I appreciate the advice, Ms. Amis, but you don’t know me.  I am using my voice to work for change.  I’ve used my voice in this blog and others, in several articles published in EdWeek and in multiple California newspapers.  I’ve presented at regional, state and national conferences, and was invited to address a federal commission on educational equity and excellence.  I’ve advocated for change within my local teachers association and state union.  I’ve gone on public radio, spoken out at town halls and school board meetings, organized film screenings and panel discussions.  I’ve submitted written comments to various agencies, boards and committees, and spoken twice with visitors from the U.S. Department of Education when they came to my area.  I’ve visited the offices of dozens of state and national legislators, and helped direct policy-related discussions and projects with teacher leaders from all around California.

Ms. Amis, as a skilled (and now experienced) filmmaker, might you use your voice in the public realm to uncover multiple dimensions to the compelling stories that lend urgency to our work?  Go beyond provoking a discussion, and contribute more information that elevates the discussion so that we can better address our shared goals.

[EDIT: corrected link to on 2/9/13]

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